Big Numbers Mean Nought.
Lay a big number on the table and it’s almost guaranteed to spark a chain reaction. Silence. A pause. Maybe an audible gasp. And then, more than likely, procrastination or complete full stop. I am currently training to run 1300km in 19 days. That’s a big number. I will take more than 1.7 million steps to cover that distance. That’s a really big number. 1.7 million is also the estimated number of Australians who directly experience violence from a family member before the age of 15. That’s the reason I’m taking the 1.7 million steps. I could let it stop me in my tracks. But I won’t. Here’s what I know about big numbers and how to overcome them.
When it comes to running, there is part of the human brain that loves getting its cells locked onto a big number. It is the primal, protective part of the brain whose mission it is to send us back onto that lounge chair with a slice of Grandma’s chocolate cake and a nice, safe book. In endurance sport, that limiting part of the brain is commonly referred to as the ‘Central Governor’.
When we see a big number, the Central Governor immediately swings into action. It rapidly fires its first volley; a mash-up of phrases containing the shrapnel of ‘impossible’, ‘beyond you’, ‘painful’, and ‘foolish’. Passion and spirit try for a rapid riposte but the Central Governor is smiling because the weight of digits is on its side.
But here’s the thing. Big numbers are made up of lots of little numbers. Even this big number – 19,961,292,646,975* – is nothing more than a congregation of tiny units.
My current training phase is focused on conditioning my legs for running long periods on the road. No amount of reading motivational memes or wishful thinking can get me ready, only hard work can. I just need to put one foot in front of the other and run. Messaging with a friend, I came up with the idea of running from Sydney to Newcastle via the Pacific Hwy, approximately 160km. I have run from Sydney to Gosford (roughly half way) on a few occasions and each time I see the sign to Newcastle and think that I should stop being lazy and go the whole way. Who has that sort of thought? I know it’s not normal. Well, it’s not normal for your average citizen. But for ultra-runners, distance is only a number. We are experts at normalising numbers.
One week later, my friend and I completed the Sydney to Newcastle run, non-stop. I calculated it would be a 28-hour journey based on my current fitness and level of fatigue in my legs. This whole scenario was deeply confronting to my Central Governor. 160km is a big number; it needs preparation and respect. What was I thinking? Every excuse not to run, very few good reasons to proceed, the Central Governor thought it had the upper hand. It was in for a rude shock.
Compared to 1300km, 160km is a small number. Even smaller still is 5km. When we left Sydney, en route to Newcastle my mind wasn’t on running 160km, or 1300km. I focused on running 5km and running that well. I then ran another 5km. I wanted to run each 5km between 35-40 minutes and challenged myself to keep doing that regardless of time of day or fatigue. I celebrated with a fist pump and a treat every 5km that I nailed within my target range. The Central Governor was thrown off balance and didn’t know which way to turn. What is this? Where is the suffering? Where is the struggle? Eventually the Central Governor gave up the battle, receded to a quiet corner and flicked the endorphin switch. Those delicious second, third and fourth winds cut in, announcing to my brain and body that running is a joy and distance irrelevant.
We made it to Newcastle and I blew my own mind. Not only did I feel like I had plenty of pump still in my legs, we had reached our destination in 21 hours 43 min. Big numbers are conquered by little numbers. Keep that in mind and you can achieve anything in this life.
*USA national debt at the moment this number was typed.